Blue-water navy

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USS Abraham Lincoln leads a formation of ships from eight countries during the RIMPAC exercise in 2006.

A blue-water navy is a maritime force capable of operating across the deep waters of open oceans.[1] A term more often used in the United Kingdom to describe such a force is a navy possessing maritime expeditionary capabilities.[2] While definitions of what actually constitutes such a force vary, there is a requirement for the ability to exercise sea control at wide ranges.

The Defense Security Service of the United States has defined the blue-water navy as, "a maritime force capable of sustained operation across the deep waters of open oceans. A blue-water navy allows a country to project power far from the home country and usually includes one or more aircraft carriers. Smaller blue-water navies are able to dispatch fewer vessels abroad for shorter periods of time."[3]

Attributes of a blue-water navy[edit]

Blue-water capability refers to an oceangoing fleet able to operate on the high seas far from its nation's homeports. Some operate throughout the world.[4] It implies force protection from sub-surface, surface and airborne threats and a sustainable logistic reach, allowing a persistent presence at range. A hallmark of a true blue-water navy is the ability to conduct replenishment at sea (RAS),[5] and the commissioning of underway replenishment ships is a strong sign of a navy's blue-water ambitions.[6] Despite the above however, there is no agreed definition of the term.

In public discourse, blue-water capability is identified with the operation of iconic capital ships such as battleships and aircraft carriers. For instance, during the debate in the 1970s whether Australia should replace HMAS Melbourne, a former Chief of Navy claimed that if Australia did not replace her last aircraft carrier, she "would no longer have a blue-water navy".[7] In the end Australia did not buy a new carrier, but former Parliamentary defence advisor Gary Brown could still claim in 2004 that her navy remained "an effective blue-water force".[7] The Soviet Navy towards the end of the Cold War is another example of a blue-water navy[8] that had minimal carrier aviation, relying instead on submarines, missile-carrying surface ships, and long-range bombers based on land.

While traditionally a distinction was made between the coastal brown-water navy (operating in the littoral zone to 200 nautical miles/370 kilometres) and a seagoing blue-water navy, the new term green-water navy has been created by the U.S. Navy.[9][10] Green-water navy appears to be equivalent to a brown-water navy in older sources. The term brown-water navy appears to have been altered in U.S. Navy parlance to a riverine force.

The term blue-water navy should not be confused with the capability of an individual ship. For example, vessels of a green-water navy can often operate in blue water for short periods of time. A number of nations have extensive maritime assets but lack the capability to maintain the required sustainable logistic reach. Some of them join coalition task groups in blue-water deployments such as anti-piracy patrols off Somalia.

While a blue-water navy can project sea control power into another nation's littoral, it remains susceptible to threats from less capable forces (asymmetric warfare). Maintenance and logistics at range have high costs, and there might be a saturation advantage over a deployed force through the use of land-based air or surface-to-surface missile assets, diesel-electric submarines, or asymmetric tactics such as Fast Inshore Attack Craft. An example of this vulnerability was the October 2000 USS Cole bombing in Aden.[11][12]


In his 2012 publication, "Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific", Assistant Professor of political science Patrick C. Bratton outlined what he termed as "concise criteria" with regards to the classification of brown, green and blue-water navies. He writes:

...a brown-water navy standing for a navy capable of defending its coastal zones, a green-water navy for a navy competent to operate in regional sea and finally [a] blue-water navy described as a navy with capability to operate across the deep waters.

Bratton goes on to say that even with such a definition and understanding of naval hierarchy, it is still "ambiguous". For example, while France and the United States may be considered blue-water navies, he states that the "operational capability and geographic reach of both navies are definitely different." [13]

Overseas basing[edit]

Historically, and to present day, blue-water navies have tended to establish overseas bases to extend the reach of supply lines, provide repair facilities and enhance the "effective striking power" of a fleet beyond the capabilities provided by the nations homeports.[14] Generally, these overseas bases are located within areas where potential conflicts or threats to the nations interests may arise. For example, since World War II the Royal Navy and later the United States Navy have continued to base forces in Bahrain for operations in the Persian Gulf.[14]

The military importance and value of overseas basing is primarily dependent on geographical location. A base located at choke points in narrow or enclosed seas can be of high value, especially if positioned near, or within striking distance of an enemy's sea lines of communications.[14] However advanced operating bases (or forward operating bases) can be equally as valuable. Naval Station Pearl Harbor acts as a "gateway" for the US Navy to "operate forward" in the Pacific Ocean.[15]

Navies described as being blue-water navies[edit]

These are navies that have been described by various defense experts or academics as being blue-water navies. Some have successfully used their blue-water capabilities to exercise control on the high seas and from there have projected power into other nations' littoral waters.[16][17][18]


The PLAN aircraft carrier Liaoning.

The Peoples Liberation Army Navy has been described as a blue-water navy by British naval historian and professor, Geoffrey Till.[19] It has also received a significant amount of attention regarding its blue-water ambitions from the United States Congress[20] and the United States Department of Defense.[21] In a 2014 report for the US Congress, experts highlighted that China's naval expansion is orientated towards projecting power in the First and Second island chains.[22] In a 2013 US Department of Defense report to Congress, defense experts asserted that over the coming decades China will gain the capability to project power across the globe and conduct high intensity operations - similar to the United Kingdoms 1982 Falklands War.[21]

In the opinion of former US Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, by 2020 the PLAN will be “the second most capable ‘far seas’ navy in the world.” He highlights that China could have as many aircraft carriers as Britain or India, as many as 6-7 nuclear-attack submarines, and a similar number of AEGIS like destroyers as all the other non-US navies combined.[23]

Since 2008 the PLAN has conducted anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden on a continuous basis.[24] As of 2015, reports also indicate increased PLAN nuclear submarine activity in the Indian Ocean Region,[25][26] as well as the establishment of a naval outpost at Gwadar Port, Pakistan in the Arabian Sea.[27]

According to the latest news, China has just established a naval base in Djibouti, this was China's first overseas military base to gain access to the Indian ocean.[28][29][30]


The aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle in formation during operations in the Arabian Sea.

The French Navy[16][17][A] operates a single nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (Charles de Gaulle) which forms the centrepiece of the Navy's principal expeditionary task group (known as the Aeronaval Group). In addition to this, the navy maintains a secondary Amphibious Group (known as Le Groupe Amphibie) based around the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. Both these formations are part of the Force d'action navale (or Naval Action Force). The 'Forces sous-marines' operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and six nuclear-powered fleet submarines. France retains a network of overseas naval facilities around the world; from Fort de France in the Caribbean, to Le Port, Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Papeete in the Pacific and in several other parts of the world too, including the Gulf, South Atlantic and the Western Pacific.[31]

The Navy's operational duties include the protection of French interests abroad and the security of the nation's many overseas departments and territories, as such the Navy undertakes a number of standing commitments worldwide.[32]


A flotilla from the Indian Navy's Western Fleet led by aircraft carriers INS Viraat and INS Vikramaditya.

A number of experts have described the Indian Navy as being a blue-water navy.[18][33] India initially outlined its intentions of developing blue-water capabilities under the 2007 Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan.[34][35] The navy's priority is the projection of "power in India’s area of strategic interest" (the Indian Ocean Region).[36][37] Since 2007 the navy has increased its presence in the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa to the Strait of Malacca, and routinely conducts anti-piracy operations and partnership building with other navies in the region.[38][39] It also conducts routine two to three month-long deployments in the South and East China seas as well as the western Mediterranean simultaneously.[40][41] The navy has listening posts stationed in Madagascar,[42] Oman,[43] Seychelles and Mauritius.

The navy operates two carrier task forces centered on INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat, with a third aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, expected to be commissioned by 2018. The navy also possess an amphibious transport dock, INS Jalashwa. In addition, the Indian Navy currently leases one Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine from Russia. In 2009 India launched its first indigenously built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant. It is expected to achieve full operational clearance by the February 2016.[44]


The Russian Navy has been described as a blue-water navy by British naval historian, Professor Geoffrey Till.[19] The Soviet Navy maintained naval forces able to rival those of the United States Navy, however following the end of the Cold War and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the fleet experienced a severe decline due to lack of funding.[45] It wasn't until 2007, under then President Vladimir Putin, that "naval ambition broadened in scope and aimed at re-creating a large blue-water navy".[46] Analysts have mentioned that as opposed to the focus on submarine operations in the North Atlantic during the Cold War era, Russia's strategic emphasis has shifted towards the Pacific regions where a rising China and the United States 'Asia-Pacific Pivot' are potential threats.[47]

Russia maintains a single overseas naval facility in Tartus, which hosts a Soviet-era naval supply and maintenance facility, under a 1971 agreement with Ba'athist Syria.[48] The facility provides technical maintenance and logistical support to Russian warships deployed in the Mediterranean.[48]

United Kingdom[edit]

The Royal Navy[16][17][A][B] supports a number of standing commitments worldwide on a continuous basis and maintains an expeditionary task force known as the Response Force Task Group (RFTG).[49] The Royal Navy Submarine Service operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and six nuclear-powered fleet submarines which operate globally.[50] The Royal Fleet Auxiliary maintains a number of ships which support Royal Navy operations at range and augment its amphibious capabilities.[51][52] The United Kingdom maintains four overseas naval facilities,[53] including a refuelling station at Sembawang, Singapore in the Far East.[54]

The U.S. Naval War College identifies the Royal Navy's tasks as fighting wars, conducting distant expeditions, maintaining good order at sea and preventing and deterring conflict.[55] As such, the Navy views the retention of its "world-class" high-end disciplines in anti-air and anti-submarine warfare as strategically important.[55] The Royal Navy has shown many examples of its expeditionary capabilities,[C] such as the 1982 Falklands War, the 1990-91 Gulf War, Sierra Leone, the War in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq,[55] and during the 2011 military intervention in Libya.

United States[edit]

The United States Navy is seen as a global blue-water navy, able to operate in the deep waters of every ocean simultaneously.[16][17][19] The USN maintains nine carrier strike groups (centered on the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers), of which six are deployed or ready for deployment within 30 days, and two ready for deployment within 90 days under the Fleet Response Plan (FRP). The USN also maintains a continuous deployment of nine expeditionary strike groups that embark a Marine Expeditionary Unit with an Aviation Combat Element of Landing Helicopter Docks and Landing Helicopter Assault.[56] The US Military Sealift Command is the largest of its kind in the world and is responsible for delivering military transport and ship replenishment around the globe.[57]

The US Navy has seen several examples of blue-water combat capabilities from the Korean War to Operation Enduring Freedom and has the ability to project force onto the littoral regions of the world, engage in forward areas during peacetime, and rapidly respond to regional crises.

From green-water to blue-water[edit]

Few countries today maintain blue-water navies, but some green-water navies have ambition towards the development of blue-water capabilities.[58]

While considered to be a green-water navy,[19] the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is undergoing transition to develop blue-water capabilities.[59][60] It began in 1981 when Prime Minister Zenkō Suzuki put forward a new doctrine requiring the JMSDF to expand its operations by 1,000 miles for defense of the nations sea lines of communication.[59][60] To respond to the growing blue-water requirements, the JMSDF has been developing impressive capabilities, most notably the creation of destroyer flotillas centered on large helicopter destroyers (such as the Hyūga-class helicopter destroyers) and large AEGIS equipped destroyers.[61][62] The first post WWII overseas naval air facility of Japan was established next to Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, which supports a number of Lockheed P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft.[63]

The Republic of Korea Navy also has ambitions to develop blue-water capabilities.[64][65][66] In 2001, the then South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, announced plans to build a "Strategic Mobile Fleet".[64] The plan includes the construction of up to three Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships, with a ski-jump for the operation of V/STOL jet fighters being considered for the second vessel currently under construction.[67]

The Brazilian Navy is experiencing a "shift in maritime priorities" with ambitions of developing a blue-water navy.[68] While it maintains a mix of capabilities enabling it to operate in the wider South Atlantic Ocean, the Brazilian government wishes to be recognized as "the leading maritime power in the Southern Hemisphere" and is seeking to develop a naval shipbuilding industry.[68]

See also[edit]


1. ^ Professor of International Politics, Adrian Hyde-Price, highlights that in the post-Cold War era both Britain and France have re-focused their attention "towards expeditionary warfare and power projection. Power projection has always been an element of British and French military thinking given their residual over seas interests, but it has now moved centre stage."[69]
2. ^ Royal United Services Institute (Occasional Paper, September 2013): "As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the independent ability to deploy a credible and powerful conventional force that enables access to most of the globe by sea is compelling. This force offers Britain the opportunity to commit political support in emerging crises to deter, prevent, coerce or – if necessary – destroy an aggressor, as envisaged in the UK’s National Security Strategy (NSS)."[70]
3. ^ The Royal Navy does not typically use the term blue-water navy, but rather the term "expeditionary". "The Navy is always expeditionary and is able to deal with threats to our nation’s interest at range."[71]


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External links[edit]